Historically the dance music scene has been intertwined with recreational drug use and will definitely continue. But a recent uprise of deaths and emergencies, especially in a festival setting, have gotten people talking more and more about harm reduction. This public health approach helps curb dangerous risks by providing information and practical strategies that will ultimately help guide decisions and keep people and dance floors safer when engaging in potentially risky behavior. DanceSafe is one of many organizations that is on a mission to provide harm reduction services specifically within the electronic music scene.
First and foremost it is important to note and disclaim that by publishing this piece I am not encouraging or discouraging recreational drug use. I firmly believe that preventative health and making an educated decision is always the best measure. If you choose to use, be aware of the general effect of certain drugs but also understand that each individual has different reactions. Prepare yourself appropriately and treat yourself with care. Harm reduction efforts throughout the world are striving to help others make confident, educated decisions by ensuring certain levels of safety services are available when taking risks.
DanceSafe was founded in 1998 by Emanuel Sferios in the San Francisco Bay Area. After initially using MDMA in 1986 as a form of therapy, 10 years later he started to learn about the misuse and abuse of substances and the deaths arising from fake ecstasy pills. Inspired to help he established DanceSafe so people that choose to use would be doing so knowing exactly what substances they were taking and how those substances might effect them. As a designated 501 (c)(3) public health organization, DanceSafe embodies an ethos to promote health and safety within the nightlife community by operating under the guise of two fundamental principles: harm reduction and peer-based popular education. The organization upholds a non-judgmental attitude that neither condones nor condemns drug use.
“A nonjudgmental approach denotes an approach rooted in acceptance, genuineness, and empathy. This allows drug users, who are often stigmatized, to feel comfortable talking to us about their concerns and asking questions,” says Kristin Karas, director of programs for DanceSafe. “A non-biased approach allows us to remain credible with our participants. Scare tactics don’t work because individuals will discover what they were told was not true and will develop a mistrust for the information provided to them. Because we don’t shy away from mentioning the positive effects of substances, our participants take us seriously when we warn them of the risks.”
Karas completed her bachelor of science degree in public health studies with a concentration in community health at East Carolina University. In addition to her work with DanceSafe she also founded the Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter at her alma mater, and has done work with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, Pitt County Coalition on Substance Abuse, and Insomniac’s Ground Control Team.
DanceSafe, and other similar organizations, use a “safety first” approach to reduce drug misuse and empower young people to make informed choices. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is a national organization which funds medical research on MDMA, LSD, and other psychedelic drugs. They continue to fund harm-reduction strategies for events where such drugs are taken recreationally. “We need to discuss this not in a prohibition context, but an education context,” explains MAPS Founder Rick Doblin in an interview with the Toronto Star. “You will still end up with the fact that there are risks, but how do we, as a society, respond to that?” Additionally, the group recognizes that cause of death from party drugs is usually obscured by calling it an overdose. “What the person could die of is whatever it’s mixed with, or dehydration, or some other constellation of factors.”
Given the legal climate and general stigma regarding recreational drug use it is important programs such as DanceSafe exist. A prohibition-style approach can often lead to misinformation. This lack of education during an individual’s risk assessment will more than likely result in an uneducated decision, potentially putting a person in physical or mental harm.
“Prohibition, simply put, does not work. It didn’t work for alcohol in the ‘20s and ‘30s and the War on Drugs has failed. Scare tactics have been ineffective and led to a general mistrust of information and treating drug use as a criminal issue has contributed to a wide variety of health issues,” Karas explains. “Harm reduction works best because it recognizes drug use as a public health issue – not a criminal one. Rather than stigmatizing drug users, harm reduction treats them with dignity, compassion, and understanding because harm reduction recognizes that individuals are inherently going to engage in risky behaviors such as sex and the consumption of substances and thus it’s best put in place measures to mitigate such risks.”
It is important to discern that DanceSafe (and organizations like it) are directed to assist non-addicted drug users. Recreational drug users are stigmatized by the public eye and underserved in the health community regarding harm reduction and preventative safety.
“Non-addicted recreational drug users have lacked access to care and have been stigmatized for their personal choices regarding their own body. Many drug education programs, such as DARE, have contributed to the health gap by utilizing scare tactics instead of factual, unbiased education,” Karas says. “Furthermore, many individuals lack access to important harm reduction services such as drug checking. This is especially true in the nightlife community where promoters are hesitant to work with organizations like DanceSafe due to The RAVE Act.”
In the beginning of the new millennium the United States began specifically targeting and utilizing scare tactics as a means to control the electronic dance scenes. The RAVE Act, or Reducing American’s Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act, was introduced in 2002 by Senator Joe Biden; it was passed by Congress the following year and renamed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act. As a piggyback on the Controlled Substance Act (otherwise known as the Crackhouse Law), the RAVE Act expanded “findings” that identified specific criteria that would deem an event one that promoted drugs, by legal definition “a rave.”
Rave became defined by this legislation as a movement of young people being “initiated into the drug culture at ‘rave’ parties or events (all-night, alcohol-free dance parties typically featuring loud, pounding dance music)”. Although drug education, free water, and an air-conditioned “chill room” for party goers could help save lives, these findings became paraphernalia and grounds for prosecution under penalty of law. In response, fear began to grow. But the music will never stop, so dance music events pushed further underground and off the radar, sometimes into more dangerous environments.
Many began to recognize that by inhibiting harm reduction services there was an increase in emergencies due to a lack of education and preventative health. Amend the RAVE Act is a campaign developed in 2014 by Dede Goldsmith in response to her daughter’s death. At a club in Washington D.C. her daughter, Shelley, died from hypothermia and then cardiac arrest. Her mother thought, possibly, it was due to an adulterated substance since no one else had died that night. But after receiving the toxicology report they found the diagnosis to be pure MDMA. “I had to look into what MDMA (Ecstasy) was, and the more I looked into it, the more I realized that probably wasn’t what killed her,” Goldsmith said during Catharsis on the Mall: A Vigil for Healing the Drug War. “More than likely it was the situation that she was in.”
Her mother recognized that there were factors about the venue that had unsafe measures such as no crowd control, and inadequate water with bathroom attendees that forbid people to fill their bottles. She identifies The RAVE Act as the fear inducing wall keeping promoters from implementing safe setting measures. With this effort she petitions that language be added to the pre-existing law “to make it clear that event organizers and venue owners can implement safety measures to reduce the risk of medical emergencies, including those associated with drug use, without fear of prosecution by federal authorities.”
For example, the chill out room, has been frequently incorporated into parties for safety measure. Whether using a substance or not, an enclosed dance floor can become hot due to the collective energy and movement of numerous people. If a person happens to take Ecstasy (or any other substance that effects the regulation of body temperature) a chill out room acts as a space for people to cool their internal body temperature and stabilize their heart rate. Doing so decreases the chances of physical emergencies. However, due to The RAVE Act, chill out rooms can now be seen as “paraphernalia” and grounds to be deemed as a drug party.
“Many venue owners and event organizers refuse to allow harm reduction workers into their events because they are afraid that even acknowledging that drug use occurs will make them liable to prosecution under the RAVE Act.” – DEDE GOLDSMITH
In response to that need for education and assistance, DanceSafe’s chapters throughout the U.S. as well Canada can be found at events and festivals to provide a number of services. Most importantly, they provide a safe space to engage in dialogue about drugs and health topics relevant to the dance community. Information provided by DanceSafe is unbiased fact-based information about the effects of substances and potential harms. Volunteers of DanceSafe are also present to offer a first point of contact when someone may be in a risky or challenging situation.
To help people make informed decisions DanceSafe has capability to provide a drug checking service at events and festivals. The adulterant screening, or pill testing, within nightlife communities is pivotal in keeping dancers safe. Karas says “when we do provide drug checking, it is with the consent of key stakeholders such as promoters, venues, and law enforcement. In its most effective form, drug checking is provided openly and combined with an early alert system. Early alert systems will give updates to medical and compassionate care services (psychedelic harm reduction) so that they may be better prepared to treat their patients. Additionally, early alert systems will warn patrons of adulterated or misrepresented substances being sold onsite so that they may avoid the ingestion of such substances.” In addition to on-site testing, DanceSafe also founded the only public accessible lab analysis program in North America for Ecstasy. It is currently hosted and managed by Erowid at EcstasyData.org. This platform provides a public search system for pressed pills, their characteristics, test results, date and location.
“When I was growing up, my father always told me to stand up for myself, others, and what is right. I strongly believe that ‘what is right’ is providing factual, unbiased information to individuals so they may make educated decisions about their own body – free of stigma.” – KRISTIN KARAS [DanceSafe]
Volunteers have water and electrolytes available at event booths in an effort to prevent heatstroke and dehydration. Safe sex tools are provided for free to prevent pregnancy and STIs as well as information about safe, consensual sex practice. Free ear plugs are also available to help prevent hearing loss from booming sound systems.
Beyond the booth, the DanceSafe website houses a multitude of informative content on various topics including safety tips as you prepare for any upcoming events or festivals.
Use the buddy system. Always travel with a friend and communicate openly about what substances you have taken or plan to use. Also, don’t be afraid to let them know how you’re feeling. If you are starting to overheat or maybe things are starting to feel a little too weird, your friend should be able to help you, talk you through it, or get the help you might need.
Non-stop dancing and dehydration go hand-in-hand, especially when you factor in a substance, crowded dance floors and hot temperatures. Heatstroke and dehydration can happen and can cause fatalities, even without the use of drugs. Make sure you take time to cool down, drink 500ml of water every hour and eat a salty snack. Be sure to also replenish your body with electrolytes which serve as a supplement for maximum hydration. Drinking too much water (hyponatremia) can be fatal, causing the sodium level in your blood to dip too low.
Know your dosage and your source. Remember that old adage: you can always do more but you can’t do less. Be conscious of how much your dose is and make sure your source is reputable. Unless your substance is tested, you can never be too sure what you are taking. For example, the New York State Drug Enforcement Administration reported that of all drugs in 2013 reported to be “Molly” only 9 percent were actually MDMA. Also, if you choose to start mixing substances (like combining stimulants and depressants) be aware of the possible effects on both your mental and physical health.
Be sure you are getting proper sleep and nutrition. This may seem difficult to do (especially in a festival setting) but your body maintains a natural balance when you have proper rest and nutrients. Eat healthy meals and be sure to rest before and after dancing sessions.
Use earplugs to protect your hearing. Sound on the dance floor can reach 115+ decibels which can cause irreparable damage in a matter of seconds. The DanceSafe booth has free earplugs available but if you are looking to invest in your own pair there is a range to choose from. Basic models land in an affordable range (check out DownBeats or Earpeace) or you might choose to invest in a pair of custom earplugs, like ACS. Although a bit more expensive, these help protect your hearing while also maintaining better quality of sound.
DanceSafe promotes safe sex practice by urging people to use proper protection from unwanted pregnancy and the spread of STIs. The organization also has tips to protect yourself and others from sexual assault. In safe space environments it is natural for people to let their guard down. Unfortunately our world is not free from predatory people who will try to take advantage of that. Adhere to consent and have open communication and respect for others regarding sex in any form. If something is making you or someone else uncomfortable, speak up and address the situation directly or tell someone else.
What can you do to help? Educate yourself. Don’t spread misinformation. Learn about substances and their effects through academic books and articles, and truthful website sources, such as Erowid.org. If you participate in recreational drug use make sure your body is healthy and fit, be conscious of underlying health conditions you might have and be sure to exhibit self-care before, during and after. Protect each other on the dance floor. Be aware of your surroundings and if you or someone is disrespecting the space and/or others, do something about it.
Don’t forget that if things start getting uncomfortable – no need to freak out, it is only temporary. Find a safe place to calm down. This might require removing yourself from the environment, having some water, taking a seat or getting some sustenance. Just keep breathing!
If you are attending Detroit’s Movement Electronic Music Festival this Memorial Day Weekend, stop by the DanceSafe booth. They will not be providing on-site drug testing, but you can engage in a number of their other services. Say hello, get some information and grab some earplugs if you need them. They are there for you.
Keep talking, keep learning, and remember – just say “know” to drugs.